They were declared an essential food by the U.S. government in 1942, which meant factories that produced them were allowed to stay open during World War II. In some cases, they were the only ready-to-eat vegetable that was available.
We're not talking canned peas here, or frozen corn — it's all about potato chips. And world war or not, I bet millions of people today would still classify them an essential food and say they're the only ready-to-eat vegetable in their diets.
Never mind the dangers of getting addicted to the darned things, potato chips are to picnics, parties and all round fun times like buns are to hot dogs and candles to birthday cakes. I'm sure the way they've insinuated themselves into our lives is, in no small part, due to that World War II declaration.
The weird thing is the first potato chips weren't launched out of emergency times or good times — they were born out of a pique of resentment.
According to How Products are Made (an amazing resource if you ever want to find out how everyday things we eat and use come to be), the origins of potato chips can be scattered at the feet of one George Crum.
In 1853, as chef at a restaurant called Moon's Lake House in Saratoga Springs, a big attraction for visitors especially from New York because of its mineral springs, Crum was royally pissed off when a customer sent his French fries back because they were too thick. The customer was purported to be Cornelius Vanderbilt — industrialist, philanthropist and patriarch extraordinaire to one of the richest families in America.
One imagines you wouldn't want to offend a customer like Mr. Vanderbilt if you were cooking at a resort restaurant, but old George must have had a good sense of humour and better sense of confidence about his domain for he "sarcastically" shaved the potatoes paper thin and sent the plate back out.
Far from being offended, the customer, whoever he was, loved the things as did everyone else in the restaurant around him who had never seen anything like them.
Soon Mr. Crum opened his own resto across the lake, and his policy of refusing to take reservations seemed to make customers even more determined to stand in line to try his legendary potato chips.
Like every other humanly addictive thing, potato chips spread across the country like wildfire, becoming particularly popular in speakeasies, which illegally sold that other great addiction — booze.
In the early 1900s in America, it was home-based ventures that cranked out potato chips. Since there was no way to preserve their freshness (sealed wax paper bags wouldn't show up until 1925, along with an automatic potato peeler), the chips were made in somebody's kitchen and sold immediately out of the backs of dilapidated trucks or on the street while they were still fresh.